“It’s Time to Get Rid of the IT Department.” That was the title of an opinion piece recently published in the Wall Street Journal. Provocative? Sure. My answer to this is not “yes,” but many of the author’s points are valid.
The Same Old IT Department?
No, the IT department isn’t “dead,” and no, it’s not time to get rid of the IT department. But the IT service that the modern company needs has fundamentally changed. A centralized, technology-siloed and focused department is definitely not the answer. I started making this point some years ago – IT service delivery in companies needs to evolve.
After looking at some of the comments to the WSJ article, I realized that this is still a divisive subject. This is true, even after years of information technology oozing its way into every department of a company. And I’m not sure why.
The Rise of Engineering Ops, DevOps, Marketing Ops and More
The author of the article wrote:
“…the idea of corralling all staff with knowledge and expertise deemed necessary to manage IT into one organizational unit no longer makes sense. Leaving IT decisions and activities to a department that is figuratively and sometimes physically far from the so-called core business is a recipe for disaster.”
This is true. For example, an IT team supporting a department or business unit absolutely needs to have specific understanding and skills in that department’s business, outside of technology. The rise of Marketing Ops, Sales Ops, DevOps, and Engineering Ops are proof of this. They are teams that include technologists – but technologists that deeply understand the business of their unit, whether Marketing, Sales, Software Engineering, or Engineering. They have spent time and effort to become great in an area of technology, but they also deeply understand the processes, goals, and nuances of their business department.
The Need for Application Specialists
Further, these same department-focused IT engineers must be specialists in the applications and data that make their department function. Applications (and data) are tied closely to a department’s daily work. These apps support and guide the processes used by teams, and gather valuable data along the way.
The IT team must be able to configure and support these apps, upgrade them, understand best practices, and tailor them to the needs of a team. Each department in a company has a number of these applications. It’s impossible for a centralized IT department to specialize in all the apps that every department needs. Furthermore, to properly manage these apps, the IT engineer must understand the processes and business of the department. And that only comes from working inside the department.
And Then There’s The Data
These same arguments are true for the data. Everyone talks about how important data is. Yet each department has an immeasurable amount of data sitting with these applications, frequently untouched. The department needs data engineering skills in order to present the data in a format useful to those responsible for analytics. Only then can you create visualizations and reporting that help managers make good decisions. If the technical skills AND the business skills live in the same person, s/he can develop analytics and insights much, much more easily.
So over time, assisted by SaaS and the cloud, departments in many companies took on their own IT for these applications and data. Gradually, the teams gained the names I’ve mentioned – Sales Ops, Marketing Ops, DevOps, Engineering Ops.
How About Organizing IT Differently?
Sure, one could organize a centralized IT department into groups that support each department. Some large enterprises who have the staff have tried this. But the success of this organizational effort depends on KPIs and who the IT engineers feel they are really “working for.” Are they working for centralized IT and their KPIs, with a nod to the business? Or are they reporting to the department leader and owning those goals foremost?
So Do We Still Need An IT Department?
All said, does this mean there’s no need for the classic, traditional IT department, as the author of the WSJ article stated? Advocating the dissolution of the IT department misses a lot of very important points.
The various “IT Ops” departments need overarching, governing technology policies and some standardization. Lacking this, a company’s technology will become chaotic and inefficient. They need someone focused on cybersecurity policies and practices. Someone needs to be the main support group for apps shared across the enterprise. Further, infrastructure is typically shared, and someone needs to manage and support that infrastructure, or guide how others are supporting it.
So, the answer isn’t simple, or black and white. The effective IT department must evolve, and it doesn’t look siloed, centralized, or rigid. It looks flexible, responsive, business-centric, business-focused. It is an integral part of each department.